The Stark Truth
Written by: Verity George
Ever seen a show at the enchanting Civic theatre on Auckland’s Queen St? A much-loved city landmark, purpose-built in 1929 as a cinema for ‘talkies’, the breathtaking Civic is one of only 10 atmospheric theatres in the world. A starlit sky tricks you into imagining your’re in an outdoor auditorium while sweeping staircases, chandeliers, golden statues and lions with illuminated eyes set the scene for on-stage escapism…and sensational backstage intrigue.
Maybe you’ve taken a backstage tour, seen all the nooks and crannies or been to a saucy cabaret in the downstairs opulence of the Wintergarden? Or sipped a Freda’s Folly cocktail at Stark’s Cafe & Bar beside the entrance – unaware that the bar and drink are named after Freda Beatrice Stark – one of the most scandalous, seductive and scantily clad Aucklanders our city has ever seen.
During World War II Stark worked for the Colonial Ammunition Factory by day but by night danced the troops into a frenzy on the stage of the Civic.
From a young age stark loved to dance, reportedly often uninhibitedly naked. She grew up to be a magnificent, uninhibited dancer well ahead of her time and Stark, er real family name, was to become her ironically perfect stage name. It was her near-on stark naked dancing – wearing almost only gold paint – and her bravery to tell the stark truth in Auckland’s Supreme Court that has left her a feminist icon.
Hers is a vivid story of drugs, sex, glamour, murder, jealousy and two women madly in love that both shocked and beguiled our nation in the midst of New Zealand’s grey Depression years.
Tilly Stark had never wanted her dainty daughter to be a dancer, she insisted on paying for a secretarial course which ironically helped Freda pay for all the dance classes so popular in the day. Father Jimmy was a brilliant vaudeville tap dancer in Kaeo, keenly teaching his eldest acrobatics. When they moved to Auckland he took Freda to watch him perform at the big Fullers Theatre on Queen St. Freda was enraptured with the adagio dancers. Vaudeville was all about unusual and special feats, adagio dancing being a slow motion style involving theatrical balancing, body contortions and graceful movement – utterly thrilling at such a highly moral time when you couldn’t even hold hands in the street if you weren’t betrothed.
She was hooked on the style and her star shone from day one. Freda was soon known as a glamorous, flirtatious and talented young dancer – all eyes were always on her when she took the stage. Adulation flowed as freely as the champagne and she held men in the palm of her hand… that is until a couple of strangers sailed into town in 1933 and turned her life upside down.
Stunningly beautiful, renowned young actress, dancer and gifted soprano Thelma Trott, and and her soon-to-be (older and notoriously debonair) husband, conductor and composer Eric Mareo arrived from Australia to tour the country. The star entertainers brought their talent and style to town and quickly hit the ‘it’ scene. Known for his elegant tuxedo, cane, gloves and cigarette holder it is said that when Mareo conducted audiences clambered to catch a glimpse of him and she was musically gifted, in awe of him and on her first tour away. Little did Thelma, or Auckland, know he was to bring scandal and a dark past with him too.
The most scandalous murders of its time occurred when on Friday the 12th of April, 1935 at their perfectly nice bungalow on Tenterden Avenue, Mt Eden, 29-year-old Trott was poisoned by 45-year-old Mareo in a premeditated crime that would unveil the truth about lust, jealousy and the ultimate revenge.
Veranol was a popular barbiturate in the day – a ‘sleeping potion’ that when over-administered caused death, preceded by mental confusion, deep sleep and a coma. Three weeks earlier Mareo had gone to Morgan’s chemist shop 0n High Street and asked the pharmacist to prescribe for his wife who he said suffered from nervous exhaustion. But he didn’t stop at just one script, he visited two more drug stores in town, claiming he had insomnia, as he pocketed several phials of fawn coloured tablets made from the dried glands of exotic animals. At the salacious murder trial Mareo insisted his celebrity wife had a fear of childbirth and was anxious she might be pregnant because her period was overdue, she had asked him to help her ‘fix things’, but he never intended to kill her.
It took the whole weekend for the lethal dose of sedative given to Thelma in hot milk to slowly take fatal effect. Her best friend, and by then lover, the charismatic dancer Freda Stark, came and went all weekend from her home in Princes Street terribly worried about the somnambulant state Thelma was in, the fact that Mareo was drinking heavily and that he didn’t want to call a doctor because he claimed he had bought his wife the dope and might get into trouble if questions were asked.
After pleading all weekend for medical attention Freda could take it no more when she saw her darling becoming discoloure and ran to a neighbour to call a doctor herself. By the time the medic arrived it was too late, Thelma was in a ‘deeply unconscious state and dangerously ill’. Dr Dreardon instantly recognised signs of Veronal poisoning and ordered her taken to hospital – all too late as, due to the delay in seeking help, she died the same day.
This is an excerpt from WOMAN Magazine, read the full article in Volume 1, on sale now at all good magazine retailers.